Once known for emerging from an entrenched string-band pedigree, North Carolina-based indie quartet Mipso decided to explore beyond some familiar surroundings — geographically, creatively and stylistically — while making their fourth album.
The musical growth of Mipso — Jacob Sharp (mandolin, vocals), Wood Robinson (bass, vocals), Joseph Terrell (guitar, vocals) and Libby Rodenbough (fiddle, vocals) – is presented in all its vast glory today (April 4) at PopMatters with the exclusive full-album stream premiere of Edges Run, two days before its Friday (April 6) release.
Check it out now, and enjoy making multiple runs through Edges Run to let its tried-and-true virtues — from intricate harmonies to magnetic musicianship to splendid storytelling — soak in before feeling an emotional rush that you’ll want to experience again and again. And while welcoming each exquisite eargasm, discover the details of the 12-song album and a few of its best moments through selected reflections from Terrell and Rodenbough.
“We’re really excited about this one,” Terrell offered in an email interview that included Rodenbough, both of whom share Mipso’s principal songwriting and lead vocal duties. “We’ve all been growing as musicians, I think, figuring out how to speak more comfortably with our instruments. Songwriting, too, seems to be a skill that grows and deepens pretty slowly.
“There’s no quick way, ” added Terrell, who grew up with “bluegrass pacifists” in a big Piedmont Quaker family. “And on this record, I’m proud of how much we feel like a band that’s meshed together, that knows each other’s strengths. So there’s the individual growth from practice and listening, but also the band unit that’s like a living entity, too. We’re always talking about how to be greater than the sum of the parts. That’s taken a long time.”
The group’s first album since signing a deal with AntiFragile Music involved jumping from the relative warmth of the Southeast during the winter to the dark, damp Pacific Northwest. They wanted so badly to collaborate with producer, bassist and keyboard player Todd Sickafoose (Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird, Anais Mitchell) that Mipso’s first recording experience outside their North Carolina comfort zone was a move worth making.
“North Carolina really has nurtured us in a deep sense, musically and personally. But I think we felt like we were ready to stretch our legs, to let our recording environment shake things up a little bit,” Terrell said of working with Sikafoose (calling him “a gentle genius”) at Gung-Ho Studio in Eugene, Oregon. “It’s exactly what I love in a studio, with great gear, a killer engineer (Billy Barnett), a comfy vibe and not focused on the frills that a lot of studios try to sell you on.”
Rodenbough, who attended four Guilford County schools in Carolina before graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2014, also comes from a large family (“Two of my weirdest family names are Pescud and Theophilus,” she disclosed). Always enjoying the comforts of home, she had mixed feelings about the Pacific Northwest experience.
“Staying out there in this faraway land for the duration of the project meant we were in the recording headspace basically 24/7,” she said. “That can be a good thing, in that you get in there deep, but it can also be a little maddening. I remember getting on the plane to go back home and sort of shaking my head like I was waking up from a dream. It took months afterward to really hear the songs.”
Ahhhh, the songs. Catchy and radiant, moody and meditative, they’ll touch you on many different levels. Perhaps that was meant to be as changes in personal relationships and other life events (deaths of friends and family members) affected the way they thought and wrote.
“I was sitting in summer traffic on the worst highway in America in a rented minivan full of all my stuff, and I kind of had to just laugh,” Terrell revealed about his “Moonlight”, written during an all-day drive down Interstate 95 when he was moving back from North Carolina after a breakup.
“These songs come from all over the place,” said Rodenbough, who had her hand in eight of the album’s compositions, including five as the lone writer. “I know there are a couple of mine that I’ve been kicking around for several years. I came up with the violin lick in ‘Servant to It’ while I was on my family beach trip two years ago. Some got written, or at least finished, while we were there in the studio.
“I don’t really want to think about which of my songs are most meaningful to me, honestly, but I’ll tell you that ‘Oceans’ was a really quick one for me to write, and I still don’t quite know what it’s about.”
Following the release of Dark Holler Pop, their debut album in 2013, Mipso grew from a trio into a foursome in 2014, when Rodenbough’s status went from frequent contributor to full-time member. Another milestone was documented during the making of Edges Run as she and Terrell cowrote for the first time. Sharp also contributed on two of their three songs — “Pay in Full” and “People Change” — a double dose of sadness, punctuated by the weeping pedal steel played by special guest Eric Heywood (Tift Merritt, Over the Rhine, Pretenders), a “magical painter of sounds”, according to Terrell.
“It was a good process for us to have a timeline in mind and to really force ourselves to sit down and keep trying to make the new tunes work until they did. ‘Pay in Full’, for example, I think of as a ‘Day in the Life’-type tune,” Terrell said of the Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper’s cut. “Lib and I had two separate songs with similar vibes somehow, and we decided to try mashing them together. We ended up playing with the structure and rewriting a lot of the lyrics, with Jacob’s voice and sensibility added in there, but I think we got it to a place where it tells one story from two distinct voices.”
Ahhhh, the voices. There are actually four that resonate mellifluously on the album. They provide a contemporary blend to an accomplished roots outfit utilizing mandolin and fiddle to such wondrous effect that Edges Run should guarantee Mipso’s arrival as a 21st century all-Americana band is ahead of schedule.
Yet, while trying to “reconcile” those voices during those early 2017 recording sessions, Rodenbough discovered that the members of Mipso achieved something else.
“You end up sort of leaning toward each other,” she said. “If you look at the great creative collaborations in history, usually each collaborator is allowed to be an individual, even while the collaboration can only exist as a joint project. I guess it’s one of those salad versus melting pot things — we want people to be able to identify separate human beings in this music. If you support each other in that way, making space for differences, I think you can actually work together a lot more intimately.”
Obviously, it’s not the same old backstory for Mipso, the origins of their group name twisting and turning since three male students at UNC-Chapel Hill began performing together in 2011. Asked if they’d finally like to set the record straight regarding the entry on the band’s Wikipedia page, Terrell said: “How could something you find on Wikipedia be wrong?”
Leave it to Terrell to keep a little mystery deep inside Mipso. How could you rewrite a possible wrong when it sounds so good?
MORE STORIES BEHIND THE SONGS FROM JOSEPH TERRELL AND LIBBY RODENBOUGH
Before this Q&A session, Mipso’s two principal songwriters provide a few personal details about themselves.
Libby Rodenbough: Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1991 (“8:23 p.m., I think”). Early education: “I went to Lindley and then Wiley Elementary, Aycock Middle, Grimsley High.” Relationship status: “I stay in love.”
Joseph Terrell: Born in High Point, North Carolina, “the ‘Furniture Capital of the World,’ and also where John Coltrane grew up.” Relationship status: “You expect me to maintain relationships with both a 1941 Gibson HG-00 and a human woman? That sounds hard.” Personal request: “Everyone, please come to all of our gigs. Thank you.”
1. How did writing and/or recording in rainy Oregon contribute to the melancholic tone of some of the songs?
Joseph Terrell: “Oregon suited the melancholy songs almost too much sometimes! Some days you’re recording a heartbreak tune for 10 hours and when you leave, it’s just more cloudy cold. Hard to escape the darkness. But, yeah, that’s sort of what these songs are about. We were trying to lean into that darkness when it felt honest. And Gung-Ho is woody and dark and cozy. It sort of served as the fireplace we all gathered around.”
Libby Rodenbough: “I would just add that January 2017 was a foreboding time for most people in the world, and it was for our band at an interpersonal level, too, so there were many feelings colliding. The intensity of this work is not naturally conducive to easygoing relationships, for many reasons. But I do think that there was something great about the fact that we had to go out there right then — our tickets were booked, the plans had been made — because there was no way out of our angst. We had to sit in it, together, and try to make music. What choice was there?”
2. From the Almost Famous notebook: Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? What is easier to write — a happy song or sad song — and why?
Libby Rodenbough: “It helps! I think songs you write when you’re in an intense mood, whether happy or sad, come pretty naturally, if you’ve cleared some space in your life and brain for writing. What’s harder for me, and what I’m often going for, is to capture complexity or ambivalence, or all those in-between things you feel. That said, a song that comes out of pure, unmitigated heartbreak is hard to beat.”
Joseph Terrell: “You don’t have to be sad, but I guess you have to have been sad. Those songs come from paying attention to how that feels and remembering it. When I’m really wrecked, I want to curl into a ball and singing sounds like an awful idea. And yeah, it’s like what Lib said. When you’re happy, you need a soundtrack. You want tunes to roll the windows down. But when you’re sad, you want, like, capital T Truth. A song can crawl inside you. It’s like the Tolstoy idea where happy families are the same, but unhappy families are all unhappy in a different way. Sadness can be more three-dimensional somehow.”
3. “People Change” is a particularly heart-wrenching song, with the line “I used to love you like the world would end.” What’s the story behind the song? How did the three of you (Jacob, Joseph and Libby) come to write it?
Libby Rodenbough: “We were sitting at Jacob’s lake house about a year and a half ago, and Jacob had the beginnings of this song about growing apart from someone you once felt so deeply close to. I remember wondering, ‘Is this too dramatic? Like the world would end?’, and we were all like, ‘No, that really is what it feels like!’ I think you can feel how honest that song is for Jacob, and at the same time, it was something Joseph and I could relate to immediately. It was cool to sit there trying to inhabit that headspace together, all thinking of our own lives, but all tied to this same feeling.”
4. “Sleep, Little Dreamer” sounds like a lullaby. What was the inspiration behind the writing of that song?
Joseph Terrell: “A couple of years ago, a friend from college committed suicide. I’d been wanting to try writing a lullaby for a while, so when I heard the news, I thought, ‘Well, damn. If ever there was an occasion for a lullaby.’ So the song is sweet on its surface, but I think there’s some darkness in there, too. It came out pretty quick.
“As for background, I’ve always loved songs that fit together really tightly. That satisfaction of a verse that just clicks together, like the sing-song neatness of children’s songs. There’s definitely a strain in my music taste that runs along those lines, too, like Paul Simon and Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen and early Joni Mitchell. It’s part of what appeals to me about bluegrass and old-time, too. You’re making something within an agreed-upon form. With the possibility for great bending and stretching of the rules, of course, but within a tradition. Also, Stephen Foster from way back. I’ve had his ‘Slumber My Darling’ in my head for a long time.”
5. So who is the subject of “Take Your Records Home” and how big a vinyl collection did he/she have? How massive is your personal record collection and what’s your prized possession?
Joseph Terrell: “Yeah, vinyl is really heavy. How many records are we talking about, Libby?”
Libby Rodenbough: “The subject is a lost love, of course! This one began as a song I had written a while ago, and Joseph took it and kind of rewrote some parts and shaped the structure into this more circular thing. It’s less about the size of the collection, and more about how gut-wrenching it is to be reminded of the music you shared with somebody you’ve lost. My record collection is, I dunno, average-sized I guess?! I don’t think I have anything super-valuable. I do have this record that Ola Belle Reed signed and wrote a note for Alice Gerrard on, so that’s pretty badass. I would say the record I’m going to wear out first is the Roches.”
Joseph Terrell: “Yeah, Libby was generous with me on this one. It’s a good example of how cowriting has to start with a lot of trust. In this case, I guess it helped that we’d both recently been through heavy breakups. Basically, I fell in love with a line she’d written, which was, obviously, ‘Take your records home.’ That struck me. Very simple, but it says so much and right away had me thinking of other lines to build on that scenario and that metaphor of the spinning circle. We stripped it down to bare bones, restructured it, got it very tight and small. I love, ‘We learn to walk then crawl again like a child.’ And as far as my record collection, I inherited my Uncle Hugh’s bluegrass collection, such a gold mine. I’ll never get rid of my original Rounder 044, the first J.D. Crowe & the New South record.”
Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas